The disgraceful situation at a Philadelphia Starbucks is a difficult reminder that more progress is needed to understand and overcome bias.
The recent treatment of two black customers by a Starbucks manager in Philadelphia and their resulting arrest was disgraceful.
Exactly what transpired between the two men and the manager who asked them to leave and then called police last Thursday is unclear.
But the outcome is clear: Two black customers were treated in a way markedly different from what most people experience with the Seattle-based coffee giant. Its stores are intentionally designed as public gathering spaces, and most visitors take advantage of them, and the restrooms, without incident.
This is yet another difficult reminder that more progress is needed to recognize and overcome biases, conscious or not, that continue to result in people being treated differently because of their race, gender and appearance.
Starbucks is relatively enlightened in this regard, as demonstrated by its longstanding corporate focus on social responsibility and inclusion. The company is making great strides in addressing pay inequity and has long used its stores to create opportunity in disadvantaged areas.
It’s commendable that Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson promptly apologized, took personal responsibility and met with the men. The company on Tuesday also took the extraordinary step of scheduling the closure of 8,000 company-owned stores in the U.S. on the afternoon of May 29 for training to prevent discrimination.
That doesn’t make what happened right, but the company’s contrite response is a useful model for other businesses and individuals. Anyone can cause offense in some degree at some point in interactions with those from different backgrounds.
“This is an issue we all have to learn from. This happens every day when there’s no camera, especially for men of color,” said Michelle Merriweather, president and CEO of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle.
She said it’s great that Starbucks is stepping up and talking about the need to address bias. But this is also a starting point for everyone to “talk about it and be comfortable with being uncomfortable and talking about our personal biases and race.”
Merriweather, a former Starbucks business-development manager, said she believes the Philadelphia incident was an anomaly and doesn’t reflect the corporation she knows and worked for.
Her advice to other businesses is to “start now with the unconscious bias training before it becomes an incident because everyone, regardless of race, creed or color, comes to work with their own personal bias.”
“It has to be an ongoing learning for those in any industry where they’re interacting with the public in any way, just to ensure that this doesn’t happen,” she said.
Managers also need to be empowered and trained to de-escalate situations in a balanced way, especially when there’s no threat to anyone. They need to know what the rules are and how to enforce them, with “some sort of escalation rubric to know when law enforcement needs to be involved,” she said.
Starbucks responded appropriately, especially with its investment in nationwide training.
But as Merriweather said, “It can’t just start and stop with Starbucks.”